Preaching to the Choir?

I recently had a conversation with my Dean about the inherent challenges with publishing in peer-reviewed journals. These are the online and print journals that academics covet and tenure committees prize, where your academic peers evaluate your scholarship to determine its worthiness to appear in their journal. I lamented two things: (1) the extensive amount of time it takes to get through the review process and into the hands of eager readers; and (2) the limited impact our research has when we target only the best academic journals that are read primarily by other academics. There is certainly nothing wrong with publishing where our peers can read about our work and possibly shape knowledge, future research, and how we understand the way the world works. But my lament was whether or not we too often preach to the choir.

I was a senior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, majoring in Russian and East European Studies with a specific emphasis in nuclear weapons policies and the process of transitioning from communist to democratic forms of government. (In case you’re wondering, no, I can’t understand all the Russian being spoken during the Olympics! Sorry Mom and Dad.) I was convinced I would go on to a secret life of intelligence gathering and analysis that would somehow change the world. I spent my days in the library pouring over printed news reports (the internet was a mere infant) to understand what was happening on the ground in the lives of real people as they experienced the world around them. I wrote papers attempting to make sense of what I read – uncovering trends, applying theory to data, and understanding the role of history in the present.

I did manage to get out of the library though. At Illinois, I was active in the UCC Campus Ministry housed at Community United Church of Christ in Champaign and there sang in the choir. Perched high above altar, each week I listened intently to sermons skillfully preached and enjoyed the camaraderie of my fellow baritones. I often found myself inside the brick walls of that church, sometimes planning campus ministry events, sometimes laughing or crying with friends, sometimes chatting with the church secretary, and sometimes writing papers which were likely due in the next day or so. It truly was a community. So I was at a crossroads as a 21 year old trying to decide what to do with the rest of my life – the life of a spy or a life in the Church.

I think you probably know the answer to that question. I grew up one block away from the church that my family called home for four prior generations, Christ United Church of Christ in Dupo, Illinois. Go to the congregation’s webpage and you will see the altar cross and candlesticks that bear the names of my family members. It is the place where generations of my family were baptized, confirmed, married, and buried. After graduating from Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri in 1997, I became the second person ordained there.

In August 1997, I was called to become the Pastor of Spiritual Growth & Nurture at Immanuel United Church of Christ in Ferguson, Missouri. I think I drove the staff crazy with my analysis of data on who was attending what events and classes – age, gender, how far they drove, etc. It mattered to me that I understood how offerings appealed to different people. Were we reaching those we wanted? Did we have wide participation from the congregation or was it only the usual suspects? How were we engaging the wider community or were we at all? These were some of the questions that plagued me as I sought to evaluate our programs. It was, perhaps, an unusual practice for a local church pastor.

But it was at this congregation that I began asking deeper questions about the role of church in society. We leased a portion of our educational building to the local school district so we housed kindergarten and first grade. During the week I would interact with the teachers, parents, and children; I would hear their joys, their concerns, and their fears. I was reminded that the church had a responsibility to be an active member of the wider community to provide a place of refuge and a voice of justice.

Struggling how best to plan a portfolio of programs that would engage the community of people who were not members of the congregation led me to seek out a master of social work from the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis, MO. I stayed at the Brown School from 2000, when I started as a part-time MSW student, until I finished my PhD in 2011. While there, I helped begin the School’s dual degree programs with Eden Seminary and advised the students matriculating through this program. I ran large, federally-funded research projects and a research center. I taught courses in research methods, geographic information systems (those fancy maps you use on the internet), and practice with organizations and communities. Also during that time I served two congregations as interim pastor.

I say my PhD provided me the opportunity to bring together my passion for promoting community change through people acting collectively, with my love of the church. My dissertation research explored the idea of urban congregations as resource brokers. What does that mean? Well it means that some people have resources (say, knowledge of job openings) that other people need. It takes a relationship to facilitate that resource exchange, in this case relationships embedded within congregations. In this regard congregations can act as resource brokers. More on this in weeks to come…

The invitation to become a regular contributor to this blog came the same week I lamented we academics too often preach to the choir. As a social work researcher, I strive to get my research into venues where it can be seen by the people in whose lives it might make a difference. I have an obligation to do research with the communities who must live with the changes our findings can create in public policy and programs. While peer-reviewed journals ensure our research meets the highest standards, not everyone has access to the findings published therein. So I accepted with great alacrity the invitation to blog here.

My hope is that you, the good folks within my beloved United Church of Christ and beyond, find something useful in my musings. Perhaps you might think about things differently. Perhaps you might do things differently. Perhaps you might see a new way to be. Maybe we might engage in conversation about important issues within the life of the 21st Century church. Maybe you might give me the next great idea for research that matters. No matter what, I know we won’t be preaching to the choir because we all yearn to see anew.

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